Elena stood in a clearing near a village about three days' walk from Plateau. Around her were three of the people she had the most respect for. Two, she knew by sight: her mater, the archmaga Fulminara; and Garus, primus of the House that Elena hoped to be joining that day.
"Have you met Baruch, the head Quaesitor of the Iberian Tribunal?" Fulminara asked her apprentice. "He is here to witness your Gauntlet."
"It's an honor to meet you, Quaesitor," Elena said with a polite curtsy. She then looked at the archmagi expectantly.
"A quarter mile up this trail," Fulminara said, "there is a cave entrance on your left hand. This cave leads to a warren. Somewhere in that warren is a salamander. Bring back its head, and you have completed your Gauntlet.
"Not that it should matter to you, but you will lose the protection of my Parma when you pass the firsrt bend. Come here."
Fulminara drew her knife and reached up to cut off a lock of her apprentice's hair, which she handed to Baruch.
"With this hair," the Quaesitor said, "I will be able to determine whether you still live. If you do, you must return to us on your own. We will wait three days. If you do not..." He looked to the others.
"We will return your body to your family for proper burial," Garus said. "But we will not rescue you. Live or die, succeed or fail, it is entirely up to you."
"I understand, Primus," Elena said. She looked up at the setting sun, half-way down the gap between two peaks.
"Your gauntlet starts now," Fulminara said. "We will see you soon."
Elena turned and started trotting down the trail without a backward glance. Her armor clanked with every step, her sword sheathed at her hip and her shield on her back. In no time at all, she came to the entrance her domina had described. Even knowing that it was there, she almost missed it in the gloaming; it was only thigh-high, and partially obscured by a bush on one side.
Elena got on her hands and knees and crawled into the entrance. She had, for some reason, expected the cave to open up as soon as she was inside, but after a minute or two of crawling, it was still no more than a tunnel, and she couldn't see anything. She risked a quick Palm of Flame, which she knew well enough to cast with neither words nor gestures, to get her bearings. She saw that the tunnel curved out of sight just a few paces ahead, with no sign of getting higher that she could tell. She let her spell lapse and knelt as best she could to cast a spontaneous spell to create a floating ball of moonlight the size of her fist that she could guide to light her path. After waiting a moment to rest from the spell-casting, she started crawling forward again, eyes and ears straining for any sign of her prey.
Not long after, she came to her first branch, where the tunnel split off ahead to the right . She thought for a moment, then decided to continue straight, marking her path by casting a Rego Terram spell to leave her handprint in the stone.
A few hundred yards later, after having to recast her moonball spell and after a couple more branches and Y-splits, she noticed that the tunnel started to get bigger. It was some time further before the tunnel was high enough for her to stand up with a slouch. She closed her eyes and strained her ears to hear any sign of the salamander, to no avail. The tunnel that wasn't illuminated by her will-o-wisp was still black as pitch, though.
As she continued on, her stomach began to grumble, and Elena regretted not bringing anything to nibble on. She had to content herself with taking a sip of water before plowing on. He passed several more branches in the tunnel, marking each one with her handprint before she thought she heard something. She stopped to listen again, and could almost hear a low crackling hiss in the distance. She loosed her sword in its scabbard and took her shield off her back, gripping it firmly on her left arm. She began to move forward as quietly as she could, keeping her will-o-wisp far enough behind her to barely illuminate her next few steps. Every scuff of her boot on the gravelly tunnel floor was magnified a hundred-fold in her own ears. As she moved forward, the noise grew louder. It felt like hours before the tunnel opened up into a small cavern. She saw a lizard-like creature, about the size of a very large dog, its scales the color of molten steel. Its angular head cocked to one side as if it were listening intently before it turned to look directly at Elena. It opened its mouth and gave a loud crackling hiss as it spread its leathery wings.
Elena shifted her grip on her sword and readied her shield to take the salamander's charge, then concentrated for a moment to move her moonball to where it would illuminate the cavern without getting in her eyes.
She took a few steps forward, watching the salamander circle away warily. She darted forward, aiming an overhead swing at the creature's neck, but missed as it darted to one side.
The creature reared up on its hind legs and spread its wings, drawing its head back. Wait a minute...salamanders don't have wings, Elena belatedly thought, as the creature's head darted forward to belch a torrent of flame that washed over her for several seconds. That's a drake!
The creature blinked in surprise as Elena stood there, unharmed and seemingly unfazed by the flames, As he reared back for another gout, Elena stepped forward with a side swing, the tip of her sword glancing off the scales of his throat.
She took a step back and circled to her right, the drake turning to follow her. The drake leaped into the air, wings lifting him out of Elena's reach as she lunged forward to stab it it. The drake cut loose with another roaring wash of flames that lasted even longer than the previous one. Elena only smiled for a moment until the straps of her shield cracked and broke, and the shield fell to the ground with a clatter.
She glanced down at the shield, then back up at the drake. She gave it a wicked grin as she reached up to rub her throat, a low rumble building deep inside her. After a couple of seconds, she belched a torrent of flame that streamed around its head.
The drake let out a screech of annoyance as it flew back, wings beating furiously. It circled her warily in the air. Elena turned to keep facing it as she shifted her sword from her right hand to her left. She carefully drew her knife and moved it in her hand so that she held the blade in what she hoped was a good throwing grip, willing the drake to come closer.
Almost as though it were responding to her wish, the drake flew at her, claws extended. Elena threw the knife. Its blade pierced its wing. The sudden pain threw it off balance, and it tumbled to the ground at her feet.
She moved her sword back to her right hand before it could regain its feet, and she brought the sword down on its neck with an awkward overhand stroke. Although the blow was true, it didn't have the power to do more than penetrate its scales. The blade came free with almost no effort, and it had very little blood on it.
The drake half-hopped away and crouched facing Elena, its mouth open in an ear-splitting screech. It launched itself at Elena, bowling her over, knocking the breath from her and sending her sword skittering across the ground. Its hind legs clawed at her belly as its jaws snapped at her face before it belched another ball of flame.
Elena pressed her forearm against its throat and pushed as she twisted out from under it. She grabbed at the knife in the drake's wing before it could get away, yanking it up as she pulled it out and ripping a long gash in its wing.
The drake screeched again before it bathed her prone body in another wash of flame, this one feeling like it lasted for several minutes. Elena could smell the leather burning, and the hot links of her chain mail lay directly against her skin, shielded only by a layer of ash.
The moment the gout ended, the drake attacked again. Elaine got her arm up to protect her face, and screamed in pain as the drake's teeth clamped tightly around it. She dropped the knife, and she could hear it hit the ground by her ear.
She shifted on the ground underneath the drake, and felt around for the knife. Her fingers closed its handle, and she drove it deep into the drake's eye, closing her eyes as blood and vitreous squirted into her face.
The creature let go of her arm and backed away quickly. Elena looked around and found her sword. She rolled to where it was, grabbed it, and scrambled to her feet. She took a couple of steps toward the drake, then looked down as she felt her armor slide down her body to the ground. She stared at the pile of iron, first surprised, then annoyed. She stepped out of the mail and continued her advance on the drake.
The drake backed away warily, tail swishing back and forth, damaged wing dragging on theh ground. Elena circled it, her advance steering it toward the cavern wall. Every few seconds, it would risk a glance over its shoulder, looking for a tunnel. Every opening the drake gave her, Elena would exploit, stabbing at the it while cutting off every avenue of escape.
Elena finally had it backed against the wall. The drake screeched angrily when its tail met the wall, and it crouched low to the ground. Elena smiled as she drew back for a killing blow. The drake up as she did so, and belched another stream of flame into her face, obscuring her vision.
She took a quick step to her left, anticipating the drake's strike, turned, and brought her sword down in what felt and sounded like a solid blow. The sword twisted in her grasp, but he kept her grip and pulled it back out.
She could see that, the blow was serious but not mortal, or even crippling. The drake writhed in pain and tried to get to its feet, screeching at the top of its lungs.
Elena grabbed her sword and raised it high, then brought down with all her strength. The drake's throes prevented a clean coup de morte, but it wasn't thrashing as it had been, and its screams were reduced to whimpers. One more blow was enough to put it out of its misery.
Elena looked down at the carcass, panting, then sat heavily against the wall. She was exhausted. "I sure hope you live alone," she said.
She looks up at the moonball and concentrated to move it over head, then closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, the cavern was in pitch darkness. It took her a moment to realize that the sun must have risen outside, since the spell she had cast would have snuffed out at that moment.
She took a moment to re-cast the moonball, before looking around to be sure she was still alone in the cavern. Much to her relief, she was. She took a moment to examine her wounds. The bleeding had stopped, and there didn't seem to be any sign of disease, although she would definitely have her domina...her mater, rather...look at it to be sure.
She looked down at the drake, thinking. She decided that she didn't know enough about Rego and Vim to move the vis contained in its body into one of its claws...not without getting very lucky in her casting. She then gathered the remains of her chain mail, and decided that she didn't have the power to turn it into a chain she could use to drag the drake to the surface...nor to create a chain from nothing.
After a little more thought, she came up with a solution. She cast a spontaneous spell to make the drake glow with its own fire, as brightly as a torch. She then cast another spell to allow the drake to float and move about at her will. She smiled, grabbed what used to be her armour, her sword, her knife, and her water bottle, and placed them all carefully on the drake's body.
She then started to guide the carcass back through the tunnels, keeping a watch for the handprints in the stone she had left at the turns to mark the way she had come.
It seemed like it took a lot shorter to reach the entrance than it had to find the cavern, but after a while she saw a light ahead, past the drake's glow.
She grinned, and willed the drake out into the open before scrambling out after it.
Elena took a deep breath, then looked down at her naked body. She was covered in dirt. Her feet, her knees, and her elbows were scraped and bleeding, and the holes in her arm where the drake had bitten looked worse in the sun than they had below. There was nothing she could do about any of that at the moment, though. She still had to return to her sodales to finish her gauntlet.
When she reached the clearing, she could hear that Fulminara, Garus, and Baruch were deep in conversation, but she couldn't make out what they were saying. She took a deep breath, stood up straight, and walked out into the clearing, pulling the drake's floating body behind her.
"I couldn't bring the salamander's head. I hope its whole body will suffice."
Garus and Baruch looked at the drake, ignoring Elena's nakedness as best they could. Fulminara simply nodded. "Well done, sodalis," she said. "But what happened to your armor?"
Elena gestured to the pile of chain mail on the drake's back. Her eyes then narrowed suspiciously. "You knew that was a drake down there, didn't you?"
Fulminara nodded again. "Of course. Your last...or next-to-last lesson as my apprentice: you will never get perfect intelligence.
"Now," she said as she turned to the others, "I believe my apprentice has passed her Gauntlet."
"Agreed," the others said.
"Now...how shall we call you, sodalis?" Fulminara asked.
"I wish to take the name of a dragon associated with the Pyrenees, my ancestral home. And while it not be wholly accurate, it is fitting and thematic. My name is Vibria filia Fulminara scholae Flambonis."